As promised, today is my first feature – a summary of an interesting science paper I’ve read. Because this week we have had World Environment Day and today is actually World Oceans Day, I wanted to talk about something I have read related to that.
Nearly every news site this week has been reporting on the very serious and damaging effects of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. And we’ve all seen those shocking pictures of plastic bottles floating in the water, birds and fish trapped in plastic bags, and the mountains of plastic waste washed up on beaches. The whole world is trying to tackle the huge burden that plastics are having on the Earth.
As I was reading about the waste in our oceans I came across a paper that looks at how plastics might also be impacting our soils. The authors give a review of the research that has looked at the effects of tiny microplastics in soil and they really highlight how little research is being done in this area. The studies that have been done look at the detrimental effects of plastics on earthworms, but not how they may affect the insects living in the soil, plant growth or the birds that feed on the worms. These effects could even be passed onto humans if the affected land is used for agriculture or farming!
What I found really interesting in the paper was the sorts of plastic waste that was listed that can contaminate our soils. There is the obvious like that from landfill sites and discarded litter; but also some that I would have never even considered like plastic fibres form clothing in washing machine waste that can seep into soils, and even plastic particles produced from tire abrasions on the road!
The authors say that one of the big problems with the research into plastic contaminating soils is that there are very few reliable methods for detecting the plastics, unlike those techniques used in analysing sea-water and beaches. So it’s really hard to accurately determine the actual concentrations of microplastics in the soil and monitor any changes.
After the huge publicity that plastic waste in the oceans has gained, scientists are now beginning to focus on plastics in the soil, and a lot more research is going into developing new techniques for sampling and testing. The authors also hope that future work looks at the potential impact of this waste in other soil-dwelling species other than the earthworm to gain a better understanding of how serious the problem is, and the ways that we could potentially improve the situation.
With the huge focus that is happening right now to reduce plastic waste to try and save our oceans, this should also have a positive effect on the concentrations of plastics in the soil. But only if we start to find alternative materials to plastics, rather than alternative methods of disposal. Otherwise, in years to come, we could see the same severity of plastic contamination in the soils as we do today in our oceans…
If you’re interested in reading the paper for yourselves then check it out here. Let me know what you think!
~~~~ Edit: sorry I have now realised that the paper is not open access, so if you don’t work at an institution that allows access to the journal you won’t be able to read the full article. But you can still check out the paper’s abstract. Massive apologies!